As a philosophy teacher and lifelong arguer/debater/manipulator I have observed this: our stance on issues is the conclusion we have drawn based on what we have already decided about how the world works. Let me say it another, more crude, way: the issues we debate are most often the the symptoms. Our presuppositions, assumptions, insecurities, and past experiences are often the disease.
What this means is that arguments would be a lot more productive if we talked more about the way we see the world (our presuppositions & past experiences) and less about our stance on hot-button issues. But this takes a lot more work. Take conversations about religion, for example. It’s apparent that we have on our hands a major communications breakdown. Atheists and Evangelicals, Progressives and Evangelicals, Evangelicals and Evangelicals, all ships passing in the night—usually trying to blow each other to metaphorical shit with verbal cannons.
If you don’t understand why people stand for things, you will always have a hard time convincing them to stand for something else.
And so here is a peek into one of the major “why’s” of conservative Evangelicals (in my experience): I need my community’s interpretation of the Bible to be inerrant.
You will get far in dialogue with the average evangelical Christian if you take time to understand this statement. It means that, for them, arguments are not about human rights, they are not about sex (gay or otherwise), they are not about science. They are all about their need to uphold certain beliefs about what the Bible is, what it says, and how it has authority in their lives.
The average conservative Evangelical is not against gay marriage or evolution as much as they are against a non-inerrant and non-“plain” reading (read: my community’s interpretation that I have been taught my whole life is the only interpretation) of Scripture.
And this is understandable. Conservative evangelicalism has largely dismissed tradition, reason, and the experience of the Spirit (to conveniently use Wesley’s quadrilateral) as reliable foundations for understanding the truth about God and have put all of their eggs into Scripture. In a very profound emotional, intellectual, and spiritual sense they need the Bible to be inerrant.
If you do not come to terms with this and take it very seriously in your dialogues with most conservative Evangelicals, you will simply alienate them, giving them more and more reasons to dig their trenches even more deeply. The way to the heart of a conservative evangelical is not to ask them to give up their views of the Bible but it’s through a careful and patient deconstruction of their views of the Bible.
If you trace back any issue in which the conservative Evangelical church has changed their minds in the past 30 years, you will see cultural pressure followed by scholarship that allows for conservative Evangelicals to conform to that pressure while also still holding to an inerrant Bible. The two biggies, of course, being divorce and women in leadership. Without a new way to see the Bible, there will be incredible resistance to change, it will simply be seen as “compromise with the world.”
So, if ever you argue with a conservative Evangelical, it’s probably wise to start with the Bible, end with the Bible, and let everything in between be about the Bible.